Archive for the ‘Geekery’ Category

Question Time

Last night I had the pleasure of being in the audience on BBC Question Time with the man who is probably the nation’s favourite fantasy granddad, David Dimbleby. He appeared in his organic form, as Bio-Dimbleby, rather than his alter-ego The Dimblebot.

The program was being filmed at Portsmouth Grammar School, and in order to apply to be in the audience, I had to fill in a form with my political affiliations and opinions. When asked what political party I support, I listed the not-quite-yet-formed NHS Party, and when I received a call from one of the production team, we had a fairly long conversation about it.

Arriving at Portsmouth Grammar School, we had our bags and selves searched, and were ushered through to the canteen where tea and biscuits were being served. There were two large TVs in the room, showing the news, BBC at 6, ITV at 6.30, and Channel 4 at 7pm. I had emailed my first question the night before:

What do the panel think of these recent judgements made in relation to Twitter? Why are certain people being picked out to be made examples of, and does the panel think that it is fair for someone’s life to be ripped apart because of a tweet that should have probably just been ignored? I’ve received abuse based on my gender and appearance, but it hasn’t been taken seriously, is that because I’m not a celebrity or an airport, or is it more because the threats were obviously not serious?

Along with our tea and biscuits, we were also given a card to write a second question on, so I asked why the NHS reforms had been ignored by the BBC and other media, even though I knew it was hopeless.

Just as Channel 4 was showing footage of an elephant on the rampage in Ireland (!) Bio-Dimbleby appeared and a hush descended on the crowd.

He explained what to expect from the evening and the general format of the evening; while he was speaking, a noise which sounded like barking came from somewhere behind me. Dimbleby asked if there was a dog present, and then told us that he used to have an old Nokia which had a frog ringtone, and he then delighted us all with his frog impression! He also explained the editing process, saying that the show is streamed to Glasgow (I think) where the lawyers cut any potentially libellous content prior to broadcast. He said that they used to edit out any comments about the IRA being murderers, but they eventually stopped because the IRA don’t tend to sue for libel! He’s really funny, and it was almost like a stand-up set.

At about 7.15 we were taken through to the studio, where five people were picked from the audience to be the “panel” for the warm up debate. The purpose of this is to test the mics and the sound quality, as well as getting the audience fired up. So the subject was “Who is to blame for the obesity crisis?” and plenty of questions and comments were fired backwards and forwards. Most people were respectful and waited their turn to speak, but there was one guy in particular who apparently missed out on manners as a child, and kept dominating the conversation; he even interrupted the panel during the recording, which was a hugely prickish thing to do.

Interrupting Bald Man

Anyway, after the fake debate, the people whose questions had been chosen for the broadcast were briefed, and then the real panel came out and took their places. Whilst they were being set up with mics, myself and the girl to my left decided to do a spot of Dimbledancing, just for lols. Dimbleby then went over some ground rules etc, and made a comment about bad language, the monitoring of which he referred to as Countdown Tourrettes. His mic was a bit crackly so that was dealt with, but then even when it had been fixed, interrupting bald man still had to make a comment…

There was another fake debate, this time with the real panel, about whether national service could have stopped the riots. Alexei Sayle commented that national service should be compulsory, but that he thought he’d turned into a reactionary since arriving in Portsmouth. Some people seemed a bit miffed by that, which made it even funnier.

So then the recording started; I won’t go into detail because it was broadcast pretty much in its entirety (with the exception of a naughty word from Alexei) so if you’ve seen it, you know what happened. I wanted to ask questions on two of the points: I was hoping to ask my Twitter Trials question, and also when the subject of Kent Council building a new grammar school came up, I wanted to ask the panel whether they would prefer a new grammar school, or a new Steiner school. I know which I’d go for.

My favourite part of the whole evening was towards the end, when a student pastor (of all people) asked a question about the tax on pasties (I cannot believe that people view this as a more serious matter than the privatisation of the NHS). The panel talked shit about it for a while and then Dimbleby asked Alexei for his opinion, to which he replied that he really couldn’t care less; a reaction which was met with rapturous applause from those of us who can’t see what all the sodding fuss is about.

<3 Alexei Sayle

The camera was aimed in my direction quite a few times, on one occasion I was trying quite hard to not make elbow contact with either of my neighbours- very awkward.

But all in all a very enjoyable evening.

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Manchester Airport is a Health Risk

I arrived at Manchester Airport yesterday morning with plenty of time for my flight; I’d never been there before so didn’t know what to expect. It’s quite a large place with lots going on, so I figured it’d be easy to kill the hour before my flight. I had already gone through the rigmarole of separating my washbag so that all my liquids were in separate clear plastic bags, and I had my stuff all ready for inspection at the security area. When I got near the front of the queue I noticed that they had a fairly full-on security gate: there was a turnstile which let you through the initial metal detector, and once you’ve been checked for metallic objects, you are then presented with two glass doors surrounded by illuminated arrows; you then go through the door which lights up. One door leads you to your recently x-rayed belongings, and behind the other lurks a backscatter x-ray scanner. At this time I don’t know if this is a random allocation or if it’s due to Big Brother. Maybe if I’d been one place ahead in the queue I wouldn’t be writing this blog post.

So my turn comes and I go through the turnstile, through the metal detector, and stand in front of the doors, awaiting my fate, and hoping that the right hand door would light up and show me my freedom. Alas. I walked through the left hand door, where a kindly gentleman instructed me to place my feet on the marked circles. I calmly explained that I would rather not. He asked me to stay where I was and went to get a security officer (I’m not certain of her job title). She was a very friendly and not at all threatening lady, who walked over armed with information leaflets on the backscatter machine. I told her that I work with radiation, have spent the previous three years studying it, and that I had plenty of information on how the machines work and the radiation implications. Her body language changed slightly at this and she told me fairly dejectedly that unfortunately there was no alternative, as Manchester Airport do not allow passengers to opt out of the backscatter scanner. She asked me to email the Department for Transport and have it out with them; she said that maybe if enough people made a fuss, something might change. I’ll be honest and admit that I was so relieved to be met with someone so reasonable: I have never been on the wrong side of the law, and certainly never on the wrong side of airport security and I didn’t have the guts to get in trouble with both on this occasion. The conversation was very polite and considered, but she explained that the only way to avoid the scanner would be to not get on the flight. If I had the money I would have probably opted to take the train, but I’m still an unwaged student. I asked if they had any paperwork they could give me to prove that I had been scanned, but they don’t, which seemed odd; all she could give me were some leaflets on the machine itself. Maybe it’s part of the anonymisation process or something.

So I assumed the position, reluctantly. All the while very aware that I was being stared at by other passengers, as the entire charade was being conducted in a glass box in front of the security queue. It was quite humiliating to be honest, I know that assumptions were probably being made about why I was causing a problem, but I really don’t care. What worries me, is that there are no signs on the backscatter machine denoting what it actually is. It’s just two large black boxes which you stand inbetween with your arms in the air. At no point is it explained to you what the machine actually does or is. Is this because if they did, more people would refuse to enter it?

I’m going to do some more research, but for now I’ll leave you with these links:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-manchester-15766544

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-13990434

http://scrapthescanners.wordpress.com/2011/11/20/disgrace-and-debacle-euro-scanners/

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QEDCon Weekend

Friday was difficult. The train journey and subsequent flight were an exercise in controlling my breathing so I didn’t lose my shit in public. But it was successful, and I arrived in Manchester without puffy eyes or a snotty nose, so that’s a bonus. I went straight to the hostel to drop my bag off and when I entered the dorm a drinking game was already well under way amongst the Belgian teenagers who were there. Apparently three other people had laid claim to my bed, but as it was the one I had been assigned I decided to be obstinate.

I headed out to the hotel where the conference was being held; luckily the train station, hostel and conference were all within a couple of minutes’ walk of each other. Upon entering the bar it was apparent that the party was in full swing; I spied a few familiar faces and mooched over for a chat. The atmosphere was excellent, everyone was very welcoming and friendly, and I was even recognised by a few folk I hadn’t seen in at least two years. I stayed for a couple of hours, but really wasn’t feeling in the most celebratory of moods so decided to retire at about 10.30.

I got to the empty hostel room and went to bed, only to be woken up an hour later by the drunk Belgians who opened the door, turned the light on and exclaimed loudly “she’s asleep! Be quiet” before bashing around for 10 minutes looking for their booze stash. I went back to sleep eventually, but was awoken again at about 2am to find one of the aforementioned Belgians crouched next to my bed, watching me. Unsettling to say the least. I told him to fuck off as pleasantly as I could, and to his credit he did.

The next morning I got up earlyish and went over for the start of the conference. It was great seeing so many people I recognised, and even more that I didn’t. The first speaker, after the welcome speech, was Deborah Hyde, who gave a fantastic talk about cryptozoology at Portsmouth SITP last month, but this time she was talking specifically about werewolves. It was, quite frankly, excellent. She has such an engaging manner, and the same enthusiasm for her subject whether she’s addressing a conference hall of 400 people, or a pub side room with just 15.

Picking the talks to attend was quite tough, I didn’t really fancy the “god” talks generally; it’s a bit over done in my opinion, and I never feel like I’ve actually learned anything, other than how high my blood pressure is capable of reaching. So instead I picked topics that I felt would actually be educational as well as entertaining. The Pod Delusion Live was excellent, and made (retrospectively) more excellent by the fact that they won an award later on in the evening!

The evening’s entertainment was just great. There was a gala dinner in the main hall, but I couldn’t afford it, so a bunch of us went to an Italian restaurant instead. This pretty much summed up the entire event for me; sure I wasn’t rubbing shoulders with the celebrity elite, but that wasn’t why I was there. I wanted to meet the people I follow on Twitter, and the people who I should be following, famous or not. And I did, to an extent. I’m very aware that I really wasn’t myself and I apologise if anyone felt I was being “weird” but my head was not in the right place this weekend; hopefully my friends can vouch for that. But anyway, we had dinner, and then went back to the conference for the evening, where we were treated with comedy and music, and it was excellent. Paul Zenon had me in agony from laughing, I will definitely be watching out for his next gig.

And then we danced the night away. After chilling in the bar for a bit, I wandered over to the main hall to discover Clio and Malcom leaving, because there had been no nerd dancing! So we fixed that, fairly successfully, even though the music was dire. At one point I figured that a tribute to Bob Holness would be appropriate, so the dance moves were studied (thanks Tom), and I even provided the sound desk with the Blockbusters theme tune, but alas, they couldn’t get it to play. Sorry Bob. We do love you really.

I got back to the hostel room at about 2am to discover everyone asleep, so I decided to be petty and get my revenge. Doors were slammed, lights turned on, and heavy things dropped. Yes I am 12.

Sunday morning I was utterly thrilled to meet Edzard Ernst after his talk about his exploits in CAM. He signed my copy of Trick or Treatment and turned me into a grinning buffoon. His talk was easily the highlight of the whole event for me, he has done so much research into CAM, and suffered for it too. When the Queen’s son is out to get you, and you still continue to fight, I will worship you as a hero.

Another session I really enjoyed was the SITP forum; it was basically a how-to session for SITP organisers, we shared tips, asked questions, and generally got some really good ideas about how to make our groups thrive. Even though Cork’s answer to everything seemed to be “find a castle”. Good for them though, I’m not jealous. Grrrr.

I’ve not gone into great detail on the individual talks, purely because someone with better literary and memory skills will, and also the talks were actually not the main reason for going. It was a wonderful social event, and a fantastic opportunity to spend the weekend with a bunch of awesome folk.

The closing night was great, if a bit odd. A few of us remained, chatting in the bar, and I got talking to a couple who had only been at QEDCon that day. We were having a nice conversation, when it suddenly became hijacked by someone else (I’m not going to say who, as I don’t actually know who they were) and the topic went onto something that I found completely abhorrent, so I decided to make a break for it, leaving the couple stranded with the hijacker. Sorry. Pirate rules. Anyway, we went out for Skeptics in the Curry House afterwards, which was great, and then back to the bar for yet more chatting and socialising. I should probably mention at this point that I had started to lose my voice (due to crying / toothache / etc) on Thursday night, so by this time I was positively baritone, and getting hoarser by the hour. To anyone I met for the first time: I’m normally a few octaves higher. Honestly.

And eventually I had to call it a night. From what I hear the party continued for a long while after I left, and well done to those who survived. I was elated to return to the hostel to discover an empty room- I actually got a decent amount of uninterrupted, unwatched sleep! The journey home was interesting though, but I’ll save that for another blog post.

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Boring 2011

The Boring Conference is a one-day event dedicated to the boring, the mundane, the obvious and the over-looked. Nothing interesting, worthwhile or important will be discussed at Boring.

(If you’d prefer not to read nearly 1,500 words of my drivel, but would like to know about Boring 2011, have a look at these.)

Yesterday I went up to London Village (Bethnal Green, in fact) for Boring 2011. I didn’t know there was a Boring 2010 until the day after it had been held, so I wasn’t going to miss out this time. Oh no.

I started off the day in the correct manner by inadvertently sitting near the most boring man on the train, who talked at his wife for the duration of the journey IN THE QUIET ZONE NO LESS about some business deal with “the Israelis” that had apparently come very close to falling through but in the end after a lot of blah and blah it was eventually finalised and that’s why he had to stay late at work on Friday. Sure. That’s why.

Why is it the more dull the conversation, the more compelling it is to eavesdrop? Is it because I can’t believe someone could be so vacuous and so I’m waiting expectantly for the exciting M Night Shyamamananamamalananan twist at the end? No. It’s because I’m nosy.

Another thing I should mention: wearing New Rocks and a dressage hat is a sure-fire way to get 4 seats to yourself when on public transport, but it’s also a successful strategy for having both insults and projectiles thrown at you on the walk to the train station at 8am on a Saturday. But I’m used to it now, and my skull was appropriately protected.

So I got to London and made my way to York Hall, a leisure centre which has been around since 1929 and with the exception of Boring 2011, is now a place where people can pay money to watch men hit each other until one of them gives up or loses consciousness.

The queue at 10.20am was impressive, so I joined it.

At 10.49 I finally gained access to the inside of the building and also the running order for the day.

Yeah, that’s right, I bought a ticket for an event called “Boring 2011″ with no prior knowledge of who would actually be there. I had heard rumours of Ince and Goldacre so was disappointed to see them missing, but I got over it pretty quick. Especially when I opened my free swag envelope and found Haribo and badges.

The host, James Ward, opened the event with a rather self-conscious intro, followed by his talk on the early years of Which? magazine. The first ever Which? magazine covered the subject of electric kettles, reviewing three models by GEC, Russell Hobbs and Swan. Adjusting the price to match today’s inflated costs, the most expensive one (the Swan) ends up 30 quid more expensive than the fanciest water-boiler on offer at Argos, leaving enough cash to buy 14 boxes of Yorkshire Teabags. One of the highlights of this talk was the description by Which? magazine of the frequent toppling of cereal boxes as “maddening” . That and the cameras on sandcastles (you had to be there).

Tim Steiner was next with a talk on hand dryers which was not only not boring but also quite funny. He discussed the evolution of hand dryer technology over the years, with photographs, as well as the single biggest issue surrounding hand dryer development: noise. He spent a few hours in an acoustic laboratory with his own personal Dyson Airblade (jealous? I know I am) and was upset by the noises produced. To me, this talk epitomised the entire event. Perfect.

Chris TT travels a lot and therefore experiences a lot of different toilets. He catalogues his favourites and any notable ones that he encounters, including the disturbing urinals at a Dundee metal club which are shaped like a lipstick-wearing mouth.

Matthew Crosby originally wanted to present a talk on hand dryers, but as the other guy actually owns an Airblade he lost out to him. So instead he told us all about his Nando’s live-tweeting and how it has affected his life. He said he felt like he was trapped in a chicken-based Bourne Identity as strangers would send him tweets about Nando’s, usually saying that they themselves were dining in one of the restaurants and were surprised not to see him there. On one such occasion, he was actually on his way to the Nando’s in question but upon receiving the tweet he changed his direction.

Galit Ferguson chronicled the reorganisation of Budgens in Crouch End. Perfect.

Jon Ronson (buy his books, he is excellent) was invited to look at Stanley Kubrick’s photograph collection after the director died. What he found was over 1,000 archive boxes, which were full of photographs, mostly taken by his nephew, Manuel Harlan. Photographs of everything from doorways to room interiors, with a 6m panorama of an entire road; an early form of street view created using a ladder, a camera, and a lot of time and patience. I bloody love Jon Ronson.

Ever considered cataloguing everything you eat and drink over the course of a year? Peter Burnett did. In fact, he did it twice because the first go didn’t take place over the course of a calendar year. He didn’t read the whole book to us, just some selected portions.

After lunch, it was maths time with Toby Dignum‘s lovingly presented talk on the square root of two. And occasionally his cat. Did you know that there was such controversy over \sqrt{2} that when Hippasus of Metapontum discovered that it couldn’t be expressed as a fraction, he was murdered? Awesome.

I’ve never seen the Hugh Grant film, About a Boy, but thanks to Leila Johnston I don’t need to. She has identified the key filming locations used, mapped them, and visited and photographed them. She explained that instead of being a romantic comedy, it is a French-style film about ennui. Very apt.

Future Portsmouth SitP speaker, Matt Parker spoke passionately and in great depth about barcodes, including the more fancy and modern QR codes. He demonstrated his party trick of being able to predict the last digit of a barcode when given the preceding digits, as well as explaining ASCII for those who were previously unaware.

Greg Stekelman (The Man Who Fell Asleep) proved his love for the London Underground, or more precisely, the Victoria Line. He detailed each line, with key facts, celebrity endorsements and personal anecdotes, and I was enthralled.

Helen Keen explained the connection between NASA, Nazis and Satanists (clue #1: the name) and told us that there were no boring shuttle flights. I believe her.

Will Barratt talked about the Loebner Prize  which is awarded to the most convincing computer generated conversation. He noted that the most convincing tends to also be the most defensive, paranoid, or boring.

Rhodri Marsden hates small talk. He’s rubbish at it. He tends to ask questions like “what’s Wigan like then?” or when asked about his recent adventures, he talks about having an anal blood blister lanced.

There was another break, after which Josie Long talked at length about her Alternative Reality Tour. I love Josie, but she did go on a bit, and it didn’t seem particularly relevant or well targeted and I noticed people nearby getting a bit tetchy.

Not quite as tetchy as during Mark Stevenson‘s talk though. He was absolutely fantastic at Portsmouth SitP recently, and is a lovely bloke, but yesterday’s effort didn’t really work, in my opinion. It was an incredibly aggressive and sweary piece about “why cynicism is boring” but it didn’t fit with the theme of the event, and apparently a few people even walked out. It’s a shame really.

Richard DeDominici made me laugh a lot. His talk was in the Pecha Kucha format and was about health and / or safety. Including the sharp edges at the holocaust memorial (very dangerous during icy weather) and the application of those bobbly strap-hangers they used to have on tube trains, to be used in Tokyo during earthquakes.

Felicity Ford treated us all to the sound of the coffee machine near her office. A machine whose noises are more pleasant than its coffee. She went on an audio odyssey, recording the vending machines of the British Isles, and she shared a small part of it with us.

Finally Adam Curtis delighted the audience with a story about his colleague, Andrew, who was cataloguing “the bits in between BBC TV programmes” going back 60 years. There was an amusing interlude featuring Michael Parkinson and Robert Redford, where Parky incorrectly states that the name “Lena” backwards spells “anal”.

Overall it was a brilliant day, but disappointingly, not at all boring.

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Middle of the night, joyful rantings!

… Which I shall probably delete when I wake up and re-read this.

EDIT: Nah, it’ll serve as a good reminder of why proof-reading is important, and why blogging at 2am is not the best idea.

So, I’ve just got home from yet another awesome Portsmouth Skeptics in the Pub. And when I say awesome… well. Bloody hell.

So I get to The Globe Inn (or the Fat Fox, I don’t think I noticed its name when I arrived) and start setting up the equipment with loads of time to spare. Loads. By pure luck I found a VGA cable long enough to reach the ceiling mounted projector, literally minutes before leaving my flat (I am totes organised, promise) so when I unpacked everything I asked the barman for the projector remote. He couldn’t find it. He also informed me that the projector hadn’t been working for months.

Bollocks.

It was around about this moment when I noticed Mark Stevenson, tonight’s speaker, sat at the bar. “Oh hai, I run this shit, we have no projector and I think I’m going to cry” I thought. Then the barman casually mentioned that he had his own projector. With him. In the building. Mark offered him a blowjob, I offered him drinks. He accepted one and refused the other, you get to decide which was which.

So lovely barman brought out his BEAST of a projector. What a beauty! Huge bugger, HD ready with more inputs than a [insert filthy joke here] and the awesomest position and keystone adjuster I’ve ever seen. Yes? What of it?

Anyway, we hooked it up, I faffed with the PA and off we went!

Mark’s talk was excellent, but I already knew that, having seen him back in May at Winchester SitP. If you haven’t seen the talk then buy the book. Srsly. Buy the damn thing, it’s cheap and awesome, like all the best things and people are.

So the talk was excellent, I think I have adequately established that. The Q&A was very good, the usual calibre that I’ve come to expect from our wonderful crowd, plus some interesting unexpected ones too.

Anyway, the whole talk and the Q&A will no doubt be available at Skepticule for your listening pleasure. Prepare to be enlightened.

But the thing which you will never experience from the recording is the sheer awesomeness of the whole event. A bunch of people with similar interests yet interesting differences meet up in a pub and are entertained by someone with something intelligent, insightful and always interesting to say.

Yes I’ve said “interesting” about a million times but it’s the middle of the night and I’m still euphoric so bugger off.

So we meet in the pub, talk about awesome stuff, lovely people choose to come along and record the whole event, others take photographs, most just enjoy (and contribute to) the atmosphere, and it means that at least once a month I go home grinning like an idiot. Usually after being pretty much forcibly removed from the pub at closing time, as we’re still nattering about something terribly important like what comedians are like in their downtime or how fast you’d need to run in a circle in order to time travel.

Seriously, I’m actually euphoric right now. I apologise to the people I’m currently having Twitter “conversations” with as I doubt I’m being terribly articulate.

Anyway, I think I’ll leave it there. But seriously, if you’re in the Portsmouth area and want a fantastic way to spend a Thursday night, then come along. You’ll have to wait til January though.

Sorry!

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We Don’t Need No Education

(I assure you that we do)

So today was GCSE results day, meaning the media was full of pretty 16 year old girls jumping for joy clutching A4 sheets of paper. It also means that it’s been 11 years since I reluctantly collected my envelope from Bournemouth School for Girls, to find that I had achieved at least one of every grade, A to F, including a fail!

Looking back, it’s actually quite funny how irrelevant these grades are to me now. My two best marks, the A and B, were in French and German, and nowadays I can just about manage a brief shopping transaction in French, while my German allows me to sing along to Rammstein when I feel like it (although Mr Brien never covered quite the same topics of conversation as Mr Lindemann does!).

The F was for Religious Studies, which was because I wasn’t particularly interested in knowing the “what” (reciting the five pillars of Islam or the Lord’s Prayer is dull) I wanted to know about the “why”, and that wasn’t on the curriculum. Knowing the ins and outs of the Abrahamic religions is pointless if you don’t follow them, but knowing why someone would choose to believe these tenets makes for a much more engaging session. But alas.

The fail was for Textiles, a subject I was forced to take as I couldn’t do art, and my cooking skills were dangerous. I protested by handing in my final project (two dress-shaped pieces of sparkly material with a couple of stitches holding them together) and renacting a famous Red Dwarf skit during the written exam. Well now, not only do I make and modify my own clothes, but I also own a sewing machine AND a dress form, so they can take their “ungradeable project” and shove it!

I got a C for double Science, because the teachers seemed less interested in the subjects than the students. Physics was taught at a minimal level, with the bare curriculum being transmitted to the students, with no room for enthusiasm from either party. Since leaving school I have developed a pure, unadulterated love for the sciences, physics especially, so much so that I have a carbon atom permanently inked onto my skin as a symbol of my desire for evidence and the scientific method. I’m also about to start the third year of my BSc, something I would never have imagined ten years ago.

But I think the most telling grade was for Information Technology. My grade for this subject was influenced by two factors, the first being that it was a short course, not even a full GCSE, and it wasn’t even *really* IT, it was “typing”. A half GCSE in “how to be a good secretary” wasn’t something I considered worth my time, especially as by this point I was already building my own PCs, fixing other peoples’, and messing around with DOS code in my own time.

The second factor which influenced my IT half GCSE result was the decision my mother made to take me to the Summer Solstice celebrations at Stonehenge the night before my exam.

Stonehenge had been completely closed off to the public for 15 years, meaning that those wishing to celebrate the solstice there had to do so in the car park or by the side of the A303 instead of being amongst the stones. But for the first time in a decade and a half the ban was lifted and the solstice of June 2000 was to be enjoyed properly by druids and hippies alike. Neither myself, my mother, nor her friend Vicky were hippies and we certainly weren’t druids, but we were up for a laugh so on the evening of the 20th of June we hopped in the Land Rover and headed off to Wiltshire.

The reason why English Heritage had closed off access to the stones was because the revellers began partying a bit too hard, causing damage to the stones, and generally being dicks. As far as I can gather, this is pretty much how the solstice is “celebrated” these days, with disrespectful idiots clambering all over the stones and blaring dance music until sunrise, using it as an excuse to get off their tits in the name of an ancient pagan tradition. The following quote comes from this excellent article in the Independent:

“…I am against vandalism and drunken rowdiness as it is detrimental to everyone. The stones are of great cultural and spiritual significance, just like Westminster Abbey. It is right for people to have access to these places. But then, people don’t go to Westminster Abbey to take drugs or commit drunken violence, do they?”

This video was made about the year 2000 Solstice celebrations which demonstrates the atmosphere at the time quite well, and I even spotted myself in there at least once. My favourite bit is when the female druid beats a drunken idiot with her staff for climbing on the stones. Photos from recent celebrations seem to be dominated by such morons in wooly hats standing on the stones and demonstrating a complete disregard for a site of immense archaeological, astronomical, and spiritual interest. (I’m not a member of any particular God Squad, but I’m also not inclined to go piss in a cathedral…)

Soooo anyway, we went along, we danced, we tried to keep warm, and we passively inhaled a fair amount of airborne narcotics. We watched the sun rise above the stones, gazed in equal amounts of wonder and lethargy, and then we trundled home, singing Carpenters songs and generally making merry.

Then, about an hour later I hopped on my moped and went to school to sit my IT exam. I got a D by the way, but I then went on to implement and maintain a corporate computer network and provided IT support for nearly 7 years so it’s all pretty irrelevant really.

I guess what I wanted to say was, even if you think you’re not going to achieve much, there’s always a chance to turn things around. It’s never too late.

</fluffy feelgood blogpost>

I expect the next one will be an angry rant, don’t worry.

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…and thanks for all the fish.

Today is Towel Day, in tribute to the beautiful human being that was Douglas Adams. Douglas was a brilliant author with a wonderful imagination, quick wit, and immense intelligence which is greatly missed by people from here to the edge of the universe.

I remember my first encounter with Adams’ work very well. I was one of those infuriatingly precocious book-types as a child, and I was lucky that those around me encouraged this behaviour.

Kind of like Matilda, except I had a pony.

When I was in infant school, I exhausted the rather meagre library, so the headmaster of the junior school, Mr Bonfield, used to bring me books from his school library. When I progressed up to junior school, he kept a constant stream of books flowing from his personal collection, one of which was The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and I fell in love with it instantly. I read it as quickly as I could, bearing in mind I didn’t spend a huge amount of time indoors as a child, and when I finished it I was ecstatic to discover there were four more books in the series.

Fast forward a bit to year 10 where a new friend called Laura in a new school introduced me to The Meaning of Liff and The Deeper Meaning of Liff and my love for Adams’ writing was reignited. This was around about the time that whisperings were abound about the H2G2 film, but there was a long wait before that was realised, and a terrible, upsetting loss in the meantime.

When I heard that Douglas Adams had died of a heart attack, I thought that it must be someone else, after all, it’s not an unusual name and Adams wasn’t even 50, so it could have been a retired footballer or something.

But it wasn’t. It was him. And I was gutted.

I’ll keep my opinion on the 2005 film to myself, as I basically cried all the way through it in the cinema and I haven’t seen it since, but it inspired me to re³read the Trilogy of Five and the Dirk Gently books again, unlocking many happy memories. I recently got hold of the works on my Kindle, and I look forward to brightening up my 15 hour flight next weekend with them.

I don’t think I’ve ever properly thanked Mr Bonfield for introducing me to my favourite author, so I intend  to rectify this as soon as possible. I hope I was one of many children to have benefited from his generosity.

Happy Towel Day, you hoopy froods.

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Busy busy busy…

Just a quick update before I dash up to Basingstoke for Uncaged Monkeys…

Last night was the first Portsmouth Skeptics in the Pub at our new venue. And what a venue! It’s bigger, has a better layout, a stage and AV equipment (which will need setting up properly next time) and it’s in a better location (IMHO). Dr Chaz Shapiro enthralled us all with talk of Dark Matter and mapping the universe, while Dr Paul Curzon gave a very entertaining and mind boggling talk on Artificial Intelligence, with some fantastic practical demonstrations (involving rope and toilet roll tubes) and even a magic show! An evening of cosmology, computers, cake, and curry- what more could you want? I’m just a bit miffed that it’s my last Portsmouth SitP for a while, but I’m sure I’ll get over it.

Also, last weekend I went to see Richard Herring’s Christ on a Bike, the Second Coming. Now I have been a fan of Lee & Herring for a long long time, but the stuff they’ve both done separately in recent years has been excellent, and COAB was no exception. It’s not for the religious, in fact there were even protesters when I saw him in Salisbury, but if you have a sense of humour and are of a rational mindset, I would highly recommend the DVD when it is released.

In other brief news, my Nepal visa arrived this week, which is awesome (22 days to go!) but it’s currently the run up to exams, so it’s taken the edge off somewhat. I’ll be going apeshit on the afternoon of the 26th though….

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Portsmouth SitP #3

Last night was the third meeting of Portsmouth Skeptics in the Pub, featuring a talk by Dr Tom Williamson on The Scientific Method.

Firstly, I would like to thank everyone who attended, there were approx 35 people, meaning that the venue was at pretty much maximum capacity, so apologies to those at the back who didn’t get a good view of Tom’s slideshow, or my GoldKeith monster- here it is again, for those who missed out on its grotesque countenance:

im in ur branes, trollin ur nightmares

So, to the good stuff:

Tom’s talk began with an overview of the basic scientific principles such as theories, laws, predictions and experiments. He described how the research cycle works, and how questions become refined using scientific processes, into hypotheses and then into data. The creationist argument that “Evolution is only a theory” was thoroughly debunked- as he explained that scientific theories have a solid basis in empirical data and observable facts. He emphasised the cyclic aspect of research, in that failure at any point does not mean that the idea is worthless, just that it needs further revision and research in order to continue- which is basically science!

This is why I, personally, love science. It’s ever-changing and dynamic, yet not fickle or ungrounded. Scientific theories are altered as new evidence emerges, rather than being set in stone, such as religion, for example. The Bible was written during a time when the writers had no idea of concepts such as DNA or chemical reactions; they documented what they saw, and came up with reasons for it, which were fine at the time, but it is absurd that millions of people regard such an ignorant piece of literature as their guidebook for life in a century where, due to healthcare improvements, you can expect to live beyond 80, instead of barely scraping to 40 and dying a long and agonising death.

A key point of the talk was about how individuals or organisations engage in scientific misconduct, such as research fraud. Some major cases which Tom outlined were those of: Hwang Woo-suk, who co-oerced his assistant into donating her eggs for research; Dr Steinschneider, whose fraudulent research methods nearly led to a Juanita Hoyt getting away with multiple infanticide; and the infamous case of Andrew Wakefield (no longer a doctor), and if you don’t know about his wrongdoings, there are many books and papers on the subject.

There was a brief break, whilst I visually assaulted those present with my terrible photoshopping as part of the (now traditional) PSitP quiz, during which, Dr Tom Williamson PhD demonstrated his top secret new product to four volunteers, gathering vital marketing data in the process. I won’t go into any more detail about this part of the evening, as I honestly believe you should see this demonstration for yourself if and when The Skeptic Canary comes to your local SitP, and if he’s not speaking at your local SitP, then book him ASAP!

The next Portsmouth SitP will be on the 12th of May, more details here, although the venue is likely to change, so please check the website nearer to the date!

Edit: Audio of the talk is available here, in case you’re unable to attend a talk by Dr Williamson in the near future. Thanks so much to Paul Jenkins for recording this, hopefully we’ll have a better recording setup for the next time- without football commentary in the background!

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